Why Wars Start

While I was in Sri Lanka, I was working on a new manuscript on pacifism and just war theories.  One pacifist claim I was thinking about is the notion that violence begets violence.  Undoubtedly, this insight is true and useful for understanding cyclical violence, but I started finding wars where violence did not beget violence, or where at least one has to make conceptual somersaults or view history through a strong ideological lens to make it true.

So I set about exploring the roots of 172 wars and conflicts, including the 100 biggest wars in known history (by estimated death toll), all of America’s wars (I am American-ish and it is the biggest superpower), and nearly all important wars in the last 75 years (warfare is changing in nature). I am coding conflicts’ origins and how the war was waged with an evolving schema of 37 reasons for why wars start (triggers and underlying causes).  So far I have completed the 43 largest wars in history.  It has taken me approximately 250 hours of work (just under 5 hours per war).

Why am I doing all this?  Four reasons.

First, second, and third, I can experience spiritual clarity for myself as I attempt to comprehend atrocity, indulge my love of history, and simultaneously satisfy my vain desire to win arguments.  At the end of the process, I can say with some level of certainty that I know why wars start.  I can also disabuse idiotic notions.  For instance, many people, notably pacifists, believe that wars start because of a lack of moral fiber.  However, of the 115 warring parties I have examined, I have found exactly four warring parties whose dominant actors likely considered their involvement in the war to be immoral.

Of these four, only one played an important role in starting the conflict itself: the Yan Dynasty in the An Shi Rebellion.  Therefore, I can say with some certainty that cruel intentions do not start wars. Also, from my research so far, I think that violence does beget wars, but it is not one of the top reasons why most wars start. By the way, again from this preliminary work, religion does not appear to be a major cause either.

My fourth and final reason for looking at why wars start is to end wars.  Once we have figured out why wars start, we might figure out patterns, leverage points, and ways to end them, and be able to guide masses of people in modern democracies towards that end.  Of course, I will fail at this if I am doing all this research myself.  Even people who know me and trust my intelligence and goodwill will wonder about my biases and where I am getting my information.

So here is the big idea:  Enlist a host of intellectuals in identifying the historical causes of warfare and run the numbers. Someone somewhere (not me, I hope, because I have other big ideas that interest me more) needs to get a foundation on board to figure out and coordinate a global effort. From what I understand, some of these activities are being done to various extents. I do not know who, if anyone, is doing them all.

  1. Identify a core team of historians and political scientists to create a rubric for judging the reasons for wars (like my schema).   
  2. Identify ethnically and politically diverse teams of historians who can summarize the historical account of the causal chain that produced a war, how it was waged, and the mindset of the major participants.
  3. Pilot the schema and 172 war descriptions with 10 intellectuals who will grade the reasons for why the war started.
  4. Adjust schema and summaries as needed.
  5. Recruit the top 150 intellectuals in the world with diverse political, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds to grade each war.
  6. Run the numbers.

The goal: at the end of the day, we can know objectively, or as close we can get to objectivity, why wars start. Of course, the process might be different. For example, we might rely solely on historians to identify the causes according to my rubric, but the goal is still the same.

Some possible findings:

  • We might find out that wars start for very innocuous reasons that are preventable or at least predictable.  For example, the biggest cause of wars that I have seen so far is the emergence of power vacuums.  This, of course, is not the cause of all wars, but it has been a primary cause of 29 out of the 43 I have studied so far.  An obvious example of an exception would include the Jewish wars against the Roman occupation.  
  • We might find that violence does in fact beget violence.
  • We might find that wars are caused by inequality.
  • Moreover, we might discover the causes of different types of wars.  Civil wars, from my research, often have very different causes than wars between nations, as do ongoing unresolved conflicts that span generations (e.g., Isreal/Palestine).  Perhaps, conflicts with such different structures should not be compared.

Being able to have some objectivity when making the claims about the historical causes of warfare, especially the wars waged in the last 50 years, might help focus our discussions on the biggest causes and have numerous other benefits.

So now I am left wondering. Who is already doing this?  I talked to Alicia about this and she mentioned how some people are doing similar things at the Uppsala Conflict Data Program and the International Peace Research Institute. I need to learn about this more, but for now, I thought I would share the idea and see if I could get any thoughts.

About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

13 responses to “Why Wars Start

  • hesitantly

    Great goods from you, man. I have understand your
    stuff previous to and you are just too excellent. I actually like what you’ve acquired here,
    really like what you are stating and the way
    in which you say it. You make it enjoyable and you still care for to keep it wise.
    I cant wait to read far more from you. This is really a wonderful web site.

  • I Love Fox News « Jer's Intellectual Adventures

    […] and cool ideas that I want to discuss on my blog.  Thanks for all of your wonderful comments on Why Wars Start and Positive Theology Will Change the World.  These are two of my favorite ideas/projects lately […]

  • Arthur Fullerton

    One reason for war is optimism and positivity bias. Nations go to war because they believe the war will be predictable, short, relatively painless, and either inexpensive or a source of profit. Almost without fail, wars are long, bloody, costly and unpredictable — yet nations make these mistakes again and again. Thucydides’ record of the debates in the Athenian Assembly before the Syracusan Expedition show that this wishful thinking is as old as human civilization. I can list example after example, but my all time favorite is Romanus IV the Byzantine Emperor who lost Anatolia (now Turkey) to the Turks. (For more on this look up the battle of Manzikert). He repeatedly had the chance for peace and insisted on war. Even during the battle itself his foot soldiers would march forward and the Turkish cavalry would retreat in a cycle that continued all day in the late August heat till the infantry were exhausted. At the end of day, the cavalry turned and attacked with horrendous consequences.

  • grahamhgreen


    Just tried to comment, think it was lost. Check out “War is a racket” by General Smedley Butler USMC. http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html

    Also, I’m the guy who shot your MARTA rescue vid. Please contact me if you can be on the Dr. Drew show tonight (12/5/12). grahamhgreen…….,,,,, —-aaaaaaattttttttt – – – …………… yahoo.com



  • grahamhgreen


    This is the guy who shot your heroic MARTA video!

    I got chills reading this, not sure if you’re aware of my film, “The Torturer” about a military interrogator who returns from Iraq with acute PTSD. Read “War is a Racket” by General Smedley Butler (http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html). Will have to discuss later.

    Anyway, CAN YOU BE ON DR. DREW TONIGHT??? (12/5/12). Email me at ‘grahamhgreen…………….. — aaattttttt — ………… yahoo.com’

    They’d like to talk to you about your train rescue.



  • Tim Bastedo

    Hrm. I’m thinking that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, and WWII were all justified, as far as I can tell, because of our valuation of democratic life. We’ve spun a national narrative for ourselves in which America is the force for goodness, justice, and liberty in the world – it’s almost like it’s become our new-righteous-colonialism. Whether that was the *root cause* of the wars depends I guess on how far you buy into conspiracy-esque theories about 9/11, Pearl Harbor, and the Gulf of Tonkin. I guess I tend to give them some credibility because I see the US, and its citizens, as a very ideologically driven nation.

    Maybe America is something of an anomaly in this, or maybe my understanding of those wars is incomplete or wrong. I just can’t help thinking that there’s a connection between the us/them mentality adopted as public rhetoric in those conflicts, and the democracy v. communism/terrorism/fascism rhetoric that came along with it. Aren’t all the drone strikes Obama’s been issuing a lesson in abstraction – that the farther we put ourselves from someone, the easier it is to kill them? I wonder if ideology has served that purpose at times in our nation’s history by making the other seem so different and antithetical to ourselves that they become easier to disassociate with and destroy. I’m betting that a lot of soldiers who have been to war are unable to sustain that us/them distinction when they come face to face with the enemy, and this leads to a lot of PTSD and the recognition that war is horrible, no matter what.

    My knowledge here is super-limited to a cursory understanding of the last few hundred years of western civilization, and I’m betting if there’s truth to what I’m saying, it’s *not* a broader historical/geographical trend. I love the idea of this project!


  • Tim Bastedo

    Hey Jer,

    This is super-interesting. I’m fascinated by the fact that only four of the warring parties you studied thought their participation in their respective wars was immoral. My own partially developed thoughts on war center on the idea that most wars are fought because one side is so convinced they are right about something they are willing to kill other people over it – I think of it as a kind of excess of moral fiber, an overactive moral sense that prefers a judgment about what is right to the value of human life. Would the 111 other parties you studied have asserted that their cause was morally righteous? Not necessarily in the sense of grand ideals (though maybe), but in the sense that a system, a resource, a piece of land, a national narrative or something like that was more important than the people they had to step on to keep it/get it? Is it cliche to say that the common thread in most wars is a not-value of human life? I’m wondering what the four you mentioned would say. Maybe if 111 of war actors are acting morally, the seeds of war lie somewhere in moral psychology itself?

    I like reading your blog; it’s always interesting. Super-interesting!


    • Jer Clifton

      Fascinating…I’m thinking…clearly there are gradations to right and wrong. Perhaps everything is right or wrong, but the area in the middle is so difficult to navigate (and relatively unimportant) that obsessing about it is wrong…I digress. The point is that there is definitely some truth to what you are saying about the excess moral fiber, just as there is obviously some truth, though limited, about the lack of it. How much more? I am skeptical. Morality just does not seem to play the biggest role here, it’s more about the dynamics of power than the dynamics of morality…let me think on some more. Great questions.

      And thanks for reading my blog. I am honored. And keep these questions coming. they are fantastic.

    • Jer Clifton

      What are some examples of wars that resulted from excess moral fiber? I’m looking at my list and I am not immediately coming up with anything….

  • Whit

    I only regret that I have but one life to give

  • Ben Lipscomb

    I love the question you’re asking, and the way you’re asking it. This reminds me of so many other venues in the past few years in which people have asked, “can we begin to generate some data here and test our assertions systematically?” The work of Nate Silver and other poll-aggregators, for instance.

    • Jer Clifton

      Indeed yes! Had not thought of that. Positive psychology is another example, in Malcolm Gladwell’s vein of studying outliers: we can identify those exhibiting extraordinary strengths or achievement, and study them systematically instead of anecdotally so we do not have to, as I believe you mentioned in a previous post, rely on the wisdom of our grandmothers ; )

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: